THREE IS A MAGIC NUMBER
David Solomon – Headphones.com
Sony is the world’s most prolific headphone manufacturer. When they unleashed their new balanced armature in-ear line, they did so in a big way by releasing 11 different models all at once. The triple driver models (XBA-3 and XBA-3iP) are not as expensive as the quadruple driver models (XBA-4 and XBA-4iP) but I actually prefer them in many ways.
THE FIT & THE FINISH
The XBA-3 possesses the same design as the XBA-4 which is the reason my criticisms and praise for both models reads largely the same.
For one I don’t like the cable design all too much. As they have done with several in ear models, Sony has designed the XBA-3
to have the cable rest behind your head, but not in the standard Y-split cable fashion. The cable design of the XBA line has it so that the left and right are unevenly split. This design prevents the user from letting the cable hang in front since the left and right ear piece are connected to one another. This is a bummer for those whom don’t prefer this style, but a great asset to those who do prefer the cable to be worn behind the head. Ultimately the cable falls on the left side and terminates to a right-angle plug in order to prevent strain on the headphone output.
*The XBA-3iP features the same earpieces the XBA-3 except that it features an Apple remote and microphone for use with the iPhone. Another very important difference is that the iP versions of the XBA line, features a straight down Y-split cable. This is a much better cable style in my opinion!
Another criticism I have of the Sony XBA-3
is that the earpieces are designed to be worn with cable hanging straight down, rather than behind the ear. I prefer a behind the ear design for several reasons. Firstly, I think it is ultimately more comfortable to have the cable behind the ear. Secondly, I feel that having the cable behind the ear, prevents much of the sounds which emanate from the cable being touched or moved. These sounds are known as microphonics and are not preferable when listening to music.
One final criticism I have regarding the design is the lack of removable / replaceable cable. If the cable should break, you will need to send the earphones in for a warranty repair/replacement. Surely, not ideal, but nonetheless the cable appears sturdy enough to withstand normal use.
Now that I’ve gotten my criticisms out of the way, let me express how well built these earphones come across. The chassis of the earphones is extremely well engineered, demonstrating a tremendous amount of attention to detail. I like the angling of the earpieces and find them reasonably easy to fit comfortably in my ears while getting a more-than-adequate seal. I find that the earpieces themselves are very nice looking. A nice metallic shine and unique overall shape makes the XBA-3 a real eye-pleaser. The XBA-3 is slightly smaller than the XBA-4 and therefore this may make them easier for someone to use.
The nozzle is the perfect length and girth to ensure the earphone’s longevity. One common misfortunate for many earphone users is the dread day they accidently broke the nozzle of their earpiece while changing the ear tips. This will not likely ever happen with the Sony’s since the nozzle which holds the tip is neither too long nor too thin.
The ear tips (or sleeves) supplied are silicon. Normally I would express complaint about the absence of foam tips, but this case I have to praise Sony for including something which the DIY community has already been creating for years: silicone tips with a foam interior!
WOW! Sony really came through on this. With this design, you get the sweat resistant long-lasting benefit of silicone with the improved seal which only foam can provide. Of course, if you would prefer just silicone without the foam, Sony provides this as well. All tips come in a variety of sizes.
The cable appears to be kink resistant and terminates to a right-angle plug. As I had mentioned earlier, I always prefer a right angle-plug since it relieves strain on the input. The cable is roughly 4 feet long.
The XBA-3 ships with a uniquely-shaped pleather semi-hard carrying case. The flap-door locks via magnet. Very nice! Sony includes a cord adjuster which allows you to customize the length of your cord and wind it up securely for storage. While it is a thoughtful inclusion, I ultimately did not find it useful.
ALL ABOUT THE SOUND…
To my ears, the XBA-3 sounds more well-rounded than the XBA-4. The XBA-4 is a pinch more detailed, but ultimately the XBA-3 has a fuller tone which is more pleasing to my ears.
- Well-Balanced sound signature
- Tightly focused bass response.
- Very good spatial definition and instrument placement for an in-ear-monitor.
- Close-to-neutral tonal balance
- Particularly great with Jazz and rock music
- Lacks just a hair of depth and bottom
- At times, Vocals feel a little more in the background than the foreground.
For the most part, the XBA-3 is a little sweeter sound than the XBA-4 ; a bit more forgiving and smoothed out. The XBA-4, on the other hand is a bit more forward and detailed.
Listening to Murray Perahia’s interpretation of Schubert’s Impromptu in F minor (D. 935), I attempted to contrast the two earphones. I found that the transient response on both was about equal in smoothness and attack. The XBA-4 outperformed the XBA-3 here however. The XBA-3 felt not only a hair further back, but lacked a slight sense of space as the room reverb was less audible.
Shifting to a full-scale orchestral work, Schumann’s Konzerstuck for 4 Horns & Orchestra, as conducted by John Eliot Gardiner, I found that the XBA-3 excelled. The trumpets and horns were not piercing, nor abrasive. The cellos and basses were fully present. The only criticism I have here is that the violins have a syrupy sound (a little smooth), but in my opinion, too smooth is better too abrasive.
Listening to “Joyride” by Dave Holland with Pepe Habichuela I was truly won over. Firstly, the left and right Latin percussion parts were not marred by the aggressive hot treble sounds that other detailed headphones sometimes have. Instead, the music felt alive and rhythmically focused, with great bottom even out of the iPod. The guitar, also played in a percussive nature, did not get swallowed up by the rest of the percussion. The XBA-3 showed itself to be a top tier earphone on this track.
Listening to U2’s “One Tree Hill” I was pleased to see that the detail-capabilities I heard in the previous track, carried through to this one. The alternating left/right guitar parts were both present and easily decipherable within the dense mix. The vocal showed here to be a bit lacking in presence. The mids on the XBA-3 shows some recessive qualities which leaves vocals more blended, rather than forward. Depending on your preference, this could be a good or bad thing.
Listening to “Fall of ’82” by The Shins, I was pleased that the XBA-3 showed no signs of overt sibilance, yet tremendous detail over the entire audio spectrum. It lacks some warmth and transparency, but overall, it is a very clear and involving sound.
While listening to Jay-Z’s “Empire State of Mind,” I became fully convinced that the XBA-3 is a better all-rounder than the XBA-4. Whereas, the XBA-4 felt a bit more aggressive in the treble region during my hip-hop listens, the XBA-3 was more on-point with the music – full bottom, clarity in the vocal, and just a better all-round visceral feeling. I could imagine some hip hop fans will want even more bass from their earphones, but overall I was very pleased with the sound.
The XBA-3 is a great triple driver IEM. It may not be the top model in Sony’s new balanced armature line, but I think many listeners would prefer the sound of the XBA-3 over Sony’s top offering – the XBA-4. I recommend the XBA-3 without hesitation to any fan of many genres of music!
RATING CHART AT PRICEPOINT
|Design & Features
||9 out of 10